What’s in a look or a quick glance? Not much you might think but continuing research over the last few years is revealing quite a few remarkable facts about the effects of eye contact between owner and dogs. There is evidence that a look from your pet dog can actually change the biochemistry of the owner.
The Love hormone
The hormone oxytocin is known to aid bonding and is sometimes referred to as the love hormone. In bitches it is released when pups are born and helps with contractions between births as well as being a mild analgesic to help in multiple births. It also helps to form the bond between mother and pups. Similarly in humans higher levels of oxytocin are measured after sex or during “happy “ social events such as marriages where higher than normal levels are measured in brides and brides’ mothers more so than other guests and participants although show elevated levels. This leads researchers to believe that oxytocin helps in group bonding and social cohesion.
Almost as surprising is that higher levels of oxytocin are measured in owners after prolonged eye contact with their dogs. Not only were oxytocin levels increased but also in a whole range of other hormones, including beta- endorphins, associated with euphoria and pain relief; prolactin which promotes bonding associated with parenting behaviour, phenylethylamine and dopamine. Perhaps this explains why a recent US poll found that over 50% of single female dog owners would prefer to spend Valentine’s evening with their dog rather than with a human companion !
Almost as surprising is the finding that increased eye contact with owners also raises the oxytocin levels in the dog. It seems that eye contact between dog and human helps both animals to feel good about each other and themselves by altering the biochemistry of each.
Humans when first meeting someone gaze to the left so that they are viewing the right side of the stranger’s face. The right hemisphere of the brain is thought to be the area which processes emotions and therefore the gaze focuses to the left to read the right side of the face which reveals the “true “emotional state of the stranger. This only happens when judging people rather than objects. No other primate has this left gaze bias and it was long thought that humans were the only animal to show this bias. Now researchers have discovered that dogs also have this behaviour and that they are also reading our emotional state by concentrating on the the right side features when viewing humans. The left bias is also seen in the dog when it wags its tail: owners are greeted with a tail wag to the left whilst in aggression the tail is seen wagging to the right.
Perhaps there is more than a morsel of truth in thinking that a dog’s first response to a stranger can be a more accurate reading of the true nature of that person than we get from listening to him or her.
Happy or Angry?
We dog owners are often aware that that our dogs seem to be aware of how we are feeling and recent studies have demonstrated that dogs can actually discriminate between angry and happy individuals. A group of dogs were trained to press a button for a food reward when a top or bottom portion of a face was displayed. One group was trained on happy faces( smiling or happy eyes) , the other on angry faces. Correct responses were rewarded with a food titbit .When shown a new set of faces the dogs were able to to pick out the happy / angry individuals even if they were now shown a different portion of the face to which they were initially trained. Another interesting point from this research was that the dogs trained on angry faces took almost three times as long to train to respond to an angry face than to a happy face, leading researchers to posit the explanation that the angry faces inhibited learning because of previous learning by the dogs that an unhappy/ angry owner was less likely to be rewarding or is to be avoided. This would help explain the “guilt” reaction by dogs when faced with an angry owner: the dog reads the angry face and then responds with an appeasing gesture (no eye contact with low tail and body posture) to which the owner declares “ The dog knew it had done something wrong and looked guilty” !
Gaze following was until recently only thought to be a human behaviour, but a 2012 study has shown that dogs are receptive to human communications ina manner similar to human infants. This study suggests that dogs are able to read communicative intent . In the experiment dogs looked at a person on a video. In one video the person initially directed attention to the dog (said hello in a high pitched tone and made eye contact) and then looked at an object to either the left or right. In the other video the person greeted the dog in a lower toned voice and made no eye contact before again looking at one of the objects. All dogs tended to look at the individual for the same length of time, however, if contact had been initiated then the dogs also gazed at the object that the person was looking at 69% of the time ie more than by chance. Again we take it for granted that when we point at an object our dog will look in that direction rather than just look at our finger, but this is something that few animals can actually match.
Given the history of millennia of breed selection and differing times of domestication throughout the world, it will not be surprising to reveal that there are different levels of communication between humans and breed types. Research in 2010 showed that there are breed differences in dog’s gaze towards the human face. Three breeds were used in the studies, poodles, GSDs and Golden retrievers and their gaze acquisition was measured. All were similar . However, during extinction of training when no rewards were forthcoming the retrievers showed greater levels of gaze towards humans , leading researchers to believe that dogs who had been bred to work closely with humans were more inclined to initiate contact than herding breeds which were expected to work away from humans.
As one of the earliest domesticated species it seems that there has been a positive advantage for the dog to develop and maintain a close watch on its human companions. Whether avoiding angry people or altering our body chemistry there is much more to our Watch dog than first meets the eye.